“Sundays with Hitch” Launches on TCM Tomorrrow
Every Sunday in September TCM will be showing dozens of works by Alfred Hitchcock from morning until…well into the next morning. It’s not the entire canon, but it’s enough to get even a jaded fan excited — this month long series even includes two or three silents that are among the few I haven’t seen. Here’s what ‘s in the line-up tomorrow (Warning — I always include spoilers!):
Murder! (1930) There is much material in embryo form in this early talkie that looks ahead to areas Hitchcock would later explore. A setting amongst actors and theatres anticipates Stage Fright. A trial section, as in countless of his films, The Paradine Case prominent among them. Psychological jargon anticipating Spellbound and Psycho. And then a time sensitive investigation by an amateur, laced with humor. And course, the obligatory graphic murder scene.
The plot is that an actress seems to have murdered the colleague she was having tea with. All evidence points to her as the murderer but she doesn’t remember it. Then a lengthy scene in the jury room. Eleven jurors convince the single hold out, a knighted actor, who had once turned the accused down for a role, advising her to get some seasoning in the provinces. Her having done so leads to the murder, so he feels partially responsible. But the others convince him to vote guilty. She is now facing the gallows. The actor decides to investigate himself (aided by a stage manager and his wife, an aspiring actress). Gradually they uncover the truth and the true murderer.
Strong echoes of German Expressionism linger in the film—Hitchcock cut his teeth as a director over in Germany. Despite the looming gallows, the film lacks the urgency of his double chase films (where the accused is pressured to prove his OWN innocence with the clock ticking). Here it is just a case of amateur sleuthing. When they uncover the murderer (a circus performer) he commits a spectacular suicide from the top of the big top, a fall, anticipating Vertigo and Saboteur. The denouement is a little distasteful. The accused girl, now freed, becomes the actor’s leading lady and girlfriend. Somehow his instincts to effect justice don’t seem quite so noble and generous any more.
Rope (1948) Hitchcock’s first color film, and done as a stunt—all one continuous shot (in reality, several, because there were breaks when they hate to change film). It’s based on a stage play that was inspired by the real life case of Leopold and Loeb, a pair of rich young men who committed a murder as a sort of intellectual experiment. (While Leopold and Loeb were gay, here, the homosexuality is only implied.) The two guys choke their friend, put him in a trunk, and then have a smart New York dinner party with all of his friends in the same room. When I first saw the film (during its 1980s re-release) I thought both of the principals were really terrible actors. In time, Farley Granger’s performance has grown on me. The other guy, John Dall is one of the worst actors I’ve ever seen. Not just bad, but irritating. I’d be only too glad to choke HIM with a rope and put him in a box! Jimmy Stewart is woefully miscast as a Neitzsche spouting philosophy professor. The film is gorgeous to look at, especially the very artifical NYC skyline and sunset…paves the way for Rear Window.
Spellbound (1945) An interesting movie. A little too exploitatively “Freudian” in a dated and obvious way, but that sort of makes it fun at the same time. Elements of different Hitchcock themes are present here. One: the mysterious love interest we don’t trust (as in Suspicion and numerous others), and the parallelism between hero and villain (as in Shadow of a Doubt). Here Ingrid Bergman is an incredibly lovely but love starved psychiatrist at a ritzy sanitarium. Gregory Peck is the new head of the sanitarium. It is clear that in addition to being shrinks, they both have psychological problems. And of course they fall in love. Bergman gets deeper and deeper into Peck’s brain (through dream psychoanalysis) until she uncovers whom he really is, but not before we greatly fear that he will be her murderer. The fun parts of this film include Bernard Hermann’s score (complete with pioneering use of theramin), spinning spirals, and a dream sequence conceived by no less than Salvador Dali! Hitchcock’s overt interest in psychoanalysis and abnormal psychology re-emerges later especially in Vertigo, Psycho, Marnie and Frenzy.
Marnie (1964) I hated this movie the first time I saw it as a teenager. I thought it was incredibly boring (especially in light of the string of films that preceded it). The film has grown on me considerably, however. What I’ve come to realize is that it’s in the tradition of a different Hitchcock strain, the moody melodrama, of which Rebecca is the best example. I wasn’t yet enough steeped in his work (and probably not mature enough) to appreciate it at first. The real weakness of the film is not the pace, which is appropriate, but the performances of the two leads. Connery’s role calls for lots of brooding and thinking; it would have been much better with a Method type actor like Paul Newman. Paul Newman in Marnie; and Sean Connery in Torn Curtain – that would be my rewriting of history. You need someone who can brood and think on camera in this role. Connery’s better at smirks and quips – which is absolutely fine, there’s a long tradition of that in Hollywood films, including Hitchcock’s. But this role needs more. Stewart pulled off a similar obsession in Vertigo, largely because aging had given him some emotional depth and vulnerability. As for Tippi Hedren, of course she also falls short, having had at the time very little training or experience. The part called for a top of the line actress, real serious acting. Hitchcock was blinded by beauty in this case.
The Birds (1963) The first time I saw this movie, watching alone on television, I was so overwrought with tension at one point that I actually sprang out of my chair and started pacing. Tippi Hedren was famously tortured by Hitchcock in this film in retaliation for his rebuffs. His behavior was unconscionable. On the other hand it did allow Hedren to transcend her limitations as an actress. Her terror that shows up on screen as she is pecked at by her avian tormentors was quite real. The mood of the film is unrelenting and Apocalyptic. A lot of Hitchcock’s films make it seem hopeless for the hero for awhile, and then they are released. Here, it is hopeless for everybody, and then there is a reprieve, following which, we are convinced there will be many more attacks. I’m not worried though. If it came down to men vs. birds, we could kill all the birds easy. Mm, delicious.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) Supposedly Hitchcock’s favorite of all his own films, penned by Thornton Wilder. Joseph Cotton as the sometimes creepy, sometimes charming Uncle Charlie, and the then omnipresent (i.e.,in the late 40s-early 50s) Theresa Wright as his niece, also nicknamed “Charlie”. The film is profound, to the extent that Hitchcock allows himself to be so given the restrictions of the genre. Uncle Charlie is a Bluebeard, and an eloquent one, anticipating Chaplin’s Verdoux. But by creating this “special connection” and this “secret” between our heroine with whom we identify (who chafes at the normality around her and longs for something different) and her uncle, the darkest of villains, all under cover of this normal American family in this normal American town, it seems to implicate US. What is the darkness in OUR soul? A brave movie to make during the war years.
The collaboration between Hitchcock and Wilder is wonderful. Wilder’s voice comes through very strongly. One hears echoes of Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. And Hitchcock manifests the feeling visually in the town itself with its granite buildings and church steeples, front porches, and townfolk like the paunchy traffic cop and scarecrow librarian. Young Charlie rails against being in the “typical American family”. Cop McDonald Carey poses as someone taking a survey about an “average American family”. The kids have that dreamy, soulful, dramatic, imaginative and precocious quality. The little bookworm reads Ivanhoe and spouts scientific jargon while her dad reads crime magazines. And the darkness in Uncle Charlie’s soul is like the one that hangs over The Skin of Our Teeth. Cotton has some eloquent, forceful misanthropic speeches, anticipating ones the characters make in Rope.
Psycho (1960) This was probably the first Hitchcock film I ever saw, probably in the late 70s on the afternoon movie on TV. Unfortunately, Psycho is a film that never gets to be seen properly the first time. I’ll never get to enjoy the experience as original audiences did in 1960. I had seen so many of its crucial scenes already BEFORE seeing the film. God knows where, but I know I had. Various televised tributes and so forth I suppose. At any rate, there was no surprise or twist. Everyone already knows that Janet Leigh will be killed early in the movie, and how; everybody knows that Norman Bates (Tony Perkins) is his own mother. I may well have seen this movie more than any other Hitchcock movie though. I have mixed feelings about the film. In the context of his own work, I think it’s a fine statement, interesting, if atypical, and obviously a towering technical achievement. However, I like almost nothing that it inspired: neither low budget slasher movies, nor De Palma’s technocentric, ice cold studies in human cruelty. Hitchcock opened the door for a lot of crap here.
The cast is great of course—Martin Balsam as the scrappy detective. I love Perkins’ performance in this movie in particular. And then there’s that weird, interminable psychological explanation by Simon Oakland at the end, explaining the whole picture to us as though we were two year olds. It reminds me of Glen or Glenda.
The Lodger (1927)
This silent film, based on the 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lownde is inspired by Jack the Ripper. London is terrorized by a serial killer who has been murdering blondes (!) Ivor Novello is a mysterious tenant in a rooming house whom everyone (including us, thanks to seeds planted by Hitchcock) suspects of being the killer. Much striking visual imagery in the film, which owes much to German expressionism and points the way obviously to both Psycho and Frenzy.
Blackmail (1929) This landmark film is not only Hitchcock’s first talkie, but the first talkie made in Great Britain!. Some strange herky-jerky silent passages show the transition. The film is quite racy for its day. A girl goes up with a creepy artist to his loft to look at his etchings. He forces himself on her. She knifes him in self defense. The only one who knows the secret is her boyfriend, a detective – a fairly unforgivable coincidence from a narrative point of view! Yet, another creep learns the truth and blackmails the girl. It is amazing how Hitchcock’s touch is already present in this early film…the humor, the creepiness. The scene in the artist’s studio is amazing. There is this great tension and suspense and Hitchcock really doesn’t do anything except make us wait. It’s extremely matter of fact, but we can see what the girl doesn’t – that the situation is fraught with danger.
Frenzy (1972) After the downright dreadful Topaz (1969), Hitchock got back on his game with this one. It would have been a far more fitting last film for him than Family Plot turned out to be . Though not one of his best masterpieces, it is a very interesting mix of the double chase pictures with the psycho/creep genre. And to top it off, he even went back to his native England to make it. So it has that valedictory feel to it. All about a sick necktie murderer, and another guy who is falsely accused of the crime. We also spend time with the cop who is investigating the crime, and whose wife keeps cooking him disgusting food. Darkly humorous, thrilling and completely edgy for its time.